Last Friday, a doctoral student in my lab defended her dissertation - always an exciting day - except that the morning of the defense I came down with the illness from hell.
Yep, sick as a dog.
(With nothing bad intended towards dogs, I mean, as you all know - I like dogs alot).
The defense wasn't until the afternoon (3 pm) - so in the morning, I was in denial that I wasn't up to standing for any length of time (much less was I up to getting dressed, looking acceptable for public viewing, driving, or sitting upright during an hour long seminar). So during this period of denial, another committee member (who was conferencing in from Maryland) contacted me that she was unable to do so - and so I was a bit stressed, wondering if I should postpone the defense.
[But...I knew that postponing the defense would have been cruel. Unusual and cruel. And in my feverish state I kept thinking (rather hilariously) to myself: "I can't postpone. Nikole is a Virgo."]
Now, we all know that astrological signs don't generally come into play during defenses, but it had become something that Nikole often used to explain her pathological need to get things done not only on time, but early. And she was into lists, and checking things off her lists.
So her list for Friday:
(1) defend dissertation
How could I postpone that?
I was in denial until early afternoon.
I also couldn't keep down water, couldn't sit upright for more than a few minutes, and was thinking an awful lot about astrology, which was a bit out of character for me.
So - I did what I didn't want to do (and had never done before): I participated in the defense from the comfort of my 1973 Airstream home. Fortunately we had already set up a web meeting program, and had a call-in number - one committee member was already conferencing in from Australia. I got approval to have the Maryland committee member talk with Nikole the following Monday... and at a few minutes before 3 pm I called in - and introduced my graduate student to an audience of about 40 folks over the phone. Now, I will say it was weird introducing her over the phone - but I also had to laugh at myself, because I think I did a better job than I normally do. When I am present, I tend to downplay introductions - because I think 'they want to hear him/her, not me' - so I end up doing a lame job. But because I felt a little strange doing it over the phone via distance, I put a bit more thought into it... and had to laugh when my student Maria said it was the better than most of my introductions.
So for a hour-long seminar, and a two-hour defense afterwards, I sat in the Airstream at my computer with phone in hand. The end result: I didn't have to rush out of the auditorium to vomit during her talk (I could do it in the privacy of my own Airstream) and Nikole got to check off the one thing that was on her list for last Friday.
The next evening I was feeling a bit better - and went to her home where she and a small gathering of friends toasted to her accomplishment. Then, in a Microbial Lab ritual, she signed the ceremonial bottle of champagne with her name and the date of her defense. The bottle will join the others in my office - a symbol of a successful day that represented years of hard work and dedication.
I always get teary eyed during my students' defenses. Even in the Airstream, as I listened to her seminar - tears welled up. Maria and Nikole have behaved with such integrity over the past year, during this wartime year, and the respect that I have for them is beyond words. They are both good scientists, but they are even better human beings.